I gradually discovered my writing process over the course of writing eleven novels. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how and why I outline before I begin. But the step after that – transforming my outline into a first draft – I actually do in several stages. A process I think of as ‘writing in layers’.
Some aspects of writing come easier for me than others. Dialogue, for example, is what I find easiest. Description on the other hand takes me longer, as does internal monologue and scene transitions. And brilliant metaphors – don’t hold your breath!
So in creating my first draft, rather than focus on all these elements all at once, I do each one individually. I write the story through several times, each time focusing on a different element, starting with the one I find easiest and adding the harder ones in subsequent layers.
Sometimes I do this a chapter at a time, but usually in larger blocks. So I might write a hundred pages of mostly dialogue and then go back and flesh them out before moving on to the next hundred pages.
Why dialogue first.
We all mentally process and recall information via our senses. When you think about a lover, you might see their face as well as hear their laugh; you might even recall the scent of their perfume and the feel of their skin.
But everyone has a dominant sense in this regard. For the majority of people, that sense is vision, but for the second largest group, it’s hearing. (When you remember a phone number do you see it or hear it in your head?)
I fall into the second category. I don’t know if I was born that way or my training in music pushed me in that direction but this has affected the way I write.
Because I can hear what my characters are saying easier than I can see what they’re doing, my first layer is mainly dialogue (with a bit of action narrative thrown in.) Whenever I get stuck, I just sit back, close my eyes, silence my thoughts, and after a moment, almost without fail, I start hearing my characters speaking.
I think of this initial dialogue layer as my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My outline only tells me so much – the basics about my characters’ backgrounds, conflicts and goals. Hearing what they say to each other – the words they choose, the attitudes they adopt when conveying them – tells me a lot about who they are. I also get a clearer sense of how they interact and challenge each other.
In my second layer of writing a first draft I focus on what my characters are thinking. I guess because thinking is only one step removed from speaking, I find this the next easiest element to add.
This is a fascinating layer to write. It’s amazing how the impact of dialogue can change when you add what the characters are thinking as they speak. If a character says one thing while thinking the opposite, it completely changes the effect for the reader. And if a character thinks something but holds themselves back from actually voicing it, it adds depth and conflict to the scene.
In the final layer of writing my draft, I add the parts I find hardest to write – description of the setting, the action, the people; transitions from one scene to the next; the odd snappy comeback, a compelling metaphor here and there. Because I’m not trying to do everything at once, I can relax and enjoy adding these details.
With this layer done, my draft is complete. But it’s still only my first draft. At this point I find it helpful to set the manuscript aside for a while, or give it to my critiquing partners for their thoughts and comments.
In the meantime, I read a few books on craft to remind myself what I’ll soon be editing for. Then I come back, read my manuscript all the way through, marking the things I want to change or add in the revision stage.
You would think this approach would take much longer. Hard enough writing a novel once, let alone four times! But actually the opposite is true for me. Because I’m not constantly stopping to fuss with the things I’m not as good at, I can get my dialogue layer down really quickly. Then, with the bones of the story on the page, I can have fun playing around with them and fleshing them out.
Every novelist needs to discover their own process. And this probably won’t happen from writing one book. Most of us experiment with different approaches, especially in the beginning. Chances are you’ll have to get a few books under your belt before you know what works best for you.
Following on from last week’s post I’ve been thinking about how genre writers reuse basic plots over and over and still make them seem fresh and original.
Just out of interest, I went to my bookcase and read the blurbs of all my suspense novels and movies. The following are plots I found repeated:
The Serial Killer plot – This would have to be the most often used plot in the suspense genre: a crazed psychopath is on the loose and the protagonists are trying to stop him. Films and books with this plot include: Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, The Boston Strangler, Copy Cat, From Hell, Seven, Wolf Creek, Citizen X and many more.
The Stalker plot – In this plot the protagonist and often his loved ones are stalked/menaced, usually by an obsessed psychopath seeking revenge. Examples include the classic films Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction; Jaye Ford’s novel, Scared Yet and Nicci French’s, Secret Smile.
The Witness plot – the protagonist has seen something he shouldn’t have, usually a murder, and spends the story running from the villain who wants to silence him. Films with this plot include Witness, Narrow Margin, The Client and Loose Cannons
The Conspiracy plot – the protagonist uncovers evidence of a criminal cover-up or conspiracy (usually by accident), tries to convince others of what’s happening but no-one believes him. Examples: The Manchurian Candidate, Coma, Rear Window, Extreme Measures, Conspiracy Theory, Erin Brockovich.
The Fugitive Plot – the protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime and goes on the run, trying to prove his/her innocence while evading recapture. Examples: The Fugitive, Three Days of the Condor, US Marshall and the novel Nathan’s Run, by John Gilstrap.
The Framed Innocent – the protagonist is framed for a crime by villain. This one is similar to the fugitive plot but without the element of flight. The story focuses on the victim (or sometimes their friends) trying to prove them innocent. Classics are the films: Double Jeopardy and Dial M for Murder.
Mistaken Identity Plot – the protagonist is drawn into danger because he’s mistaken for someone else. The person is usually an average citizen, leading readers to feel it could happen to them. Classic films: North by Northwest and Marathon Man
The Ransom Plot – someone dear to the protagonist is kidnapped and the story consists of how they deal with the kidnappers and rescue the loved one. Films: Don’t Say A Word, Ransom, Along Came A Spider, Taken.
The Kidnapped Plot – Slightly different to the ransom plot. In this one the protagonist him/herself is kidnapped and held captive. The story consists of their dealings with their kidnapper(s) and how they ultimately escape. (Misery, The Fan Club, Kiss the Girls.)
The Possessor – the protagonist has something the criminals want, sometimes without even knowing they have it. (Films: Wait Until Dark, Don’t Say A Word; books: Firestarter and Night Season by David Baldacci)
The Runaway Plot – protagonist, usually a woman, flees from an abusive lover or husband, often changing their identity to evade discovery (Sleeping With the Enemy and The Perfect Husband, by Lisa Gardner.)
The Hostage Plot – a character is taken hostage either by criminals, or by a ‘good’ character in desperate need of help (Films: Toy Soldiers, Speed, Three Days of the Condor)
Missing Person Plot – the protagonist’s loved-one disappears and they try to find them. (The film Breakdown and Jaye Ford’s novel, Blood Secret.)
The Dismissed Suicide – the protagonist is the only one who believes their loved one’s ‘suicide’ was actually murder and they set about to uncover the truth. (Dressed To Kill)
The Amnesia Plot – someone in the story, usually the protagonist, either has total amnesia or can’t remember some event from their past. Evidence suggests they may have been involved in a crime and the story consists of them trying to uncover the truth. Films: Spellbound, Marnie, Shattered; books: See Jane Run, by Joy Fielding
Disaster Thriller – In this case the source of danger is not another person but some impending catastrophe. (Films: Volcano, Meteor, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Towering Inferno, Titanic, Twister)
Supernatural Thriller – the protagonists are battling supernatural elements. (Films: The Birds, The Shining, The Exorcist, Sixth Sense, Signs, The Mist, Amityville Horror, and The Price, by Alexandra Sokoloff.)
Man vs Nature plot – stories of survival. (Films: The Edge, Grey, The Day After Tomorrow, Jaws, Castaway)
The Outbreak Plot – a devastating virus or disease is unleashed. (Outbreak, Earth Abides, The Stand, The Plague.)
The above is just a short list of basic plots found again and again in the suspense genre. Yet how different the stories are in each group. Would you even recognize The Manchurian Candidate and Erin Brockovich as the same basic plot? No, because each writer varied the elements of character, conflict, setting and backstory to create a completely different slant and therefore a totally ‘original’ story.
I recently attended a writer event in which the topic of ‘formula’ writing came up. Though the mystery genre got a brief mention, it was mainly romance that came under criticism.
Among those present there was the usual shaking of heads at how limiting this approach is. Formula writing, it seems, is the comfort zone of the insecure and the fallback of limited creative minds.
Tell that to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.
I have never had a problem with formulas. As both a musician and a writer, I see many parallels between these two arts and this is just another example.
There are literally dozens of musical forms (just another word for formula): You’ve got waltzes, sarabandes, hornpipes, chaconnes, sonatas, fugues, to name but a few. All have very specific elements to their structures. (If it’s not in three-four it’s not a waltz. If it’s not in six-eight with two, repeated 8-bar phrases, it’s not a gigue. And don’t even get me started on rondos!)
Within any one of these forms there is still enormous scope for originality. Nearly every classical composer wrote minuets. Yet you would never confuse a Bach minuet with one by Brahms because the composers’ styles are so unique, their voices so different. Why should it be less so for authors?
‘Formula’ exits in music for the same reason it exists in writing: to meet audience expectations. Patrons of an eighteenth century ball wanted music they could dance to. If a composer handed them a funeral march, however creative and artistically written, it wouldn’t have gone over as well.
‘Formula’ in writing is all about reader expectation and it’s not just the romance genre that has them. Mystery readers expect there to be a crime early on in the story, a protagonist who unravels the puzzle, a logical presentation of clues, a few red herrings and the crime to be solved at the end. How is that any less formulaic than a romance novel?
Within the confines of even the most restrictive formula I believe there’s always room for creative scope. And actually – unless they’re writing push-the-boundaries, stretch-the-envelope kind of prose – all novelists write to a formula.
I’m currently plotting a new novel. I write suspense so of course I’m looking to incorporate lots of tension, twists and turns, dangerous scenarios, and heart-pounding action. But that’s not enough. There’s another ingredient, equally as, if not more important, that has to be there before I feel compelled to start writing.
For me desperation is what makes a great story. My characters can’t simply want something, they must want it desperately. And there has to be some major obstacles stopping them getting it. The more desperate my character’s need and the bigger the obstacle standing in their way, the greater the drama. It’s not enough to simply put them in danger.
The most compelling needs of all are emotional. Our desire for love. Our need to protect those we care about. The wish to be forgiven our mistakes. A person fighting to achieve such goals is hard to look away from, especially when the odds are against them.
In Run To Me, my first book, Zack desperately wants a mother’s love; Shyler desperately wants her son to return. Those desires mean as much, if not more, to those characters than their very lives. These are elements over and above the dangerous situation they find themselves in. Without those desires, the danger these characters face means little. Their desperate needs are what make us care.
Characters in desperate situations is what draws writers to tell their stories and readers to read them. So right now that’s what I’m searching for. So far my plot has pace, conflict and a few surprises. But it doesn’t have heart.
The search continues…
I have pin-up boards all over my work room where I post what I call ‘Notes To Self’. Some are quotes from other writers or books I’ve read, but most are things I’ve discovered the hard way through trial and error. I change these notes from time to time as my needs vary and over the years have built up quite a collection. Here are a few from the file I’ve kept:
Write every day. Don’t wait to be inspired. Inspiration most often comes when you’re already writing, when the door to your creative mind is already open.
The conditions will never be perfect to write. Stop waiting till you have more time, or the kids leave home, or you quit your job, or the weather’s cooler, or whatever. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick to it.
Give yourself a place to write, someplace where you won’t be interrupted – a room, even just the end of a table where you can leave your papers and notes laid out in a way that will lure you back again. Make this place yours, your personal sanctuary. Fill it with things that inspire you. Go there the same time everyday and write.
If others in your life won’t allow you time to write, remind them that you’ll be a better partner, parent, relation, or friend if you have an outlet for your creativity. The first person who has to take your writing seriously is you.
Passion is contagious. So is apathy. If your goal is to write well, surround yourself with like-minded people. Hang out with people with low standards and before you know it those standards are yours. But being with others who are enthusiastic, willing to take risks and dedicated to improving their work, will inspire you to do the same.
Just a few thoughts to start the new year.
Before continuing on from last week's post, I'll just revamp the main reasons I prefer to outline my novels before writing them:
Like a spinner working with carded wool, having an outline means my story is far more likely to flow freely once I start writing it. Maintaining that flow is the number one reason I choose to outline. I know from experience what happens when I lose my momentum when writing a story. Having to stop and work out some element of the plot yanks me totally out of my creative zone. And once I’m stalled, the doubts creep in: Is this story really that great? Can I do it justice? Will my editor like it?
Another reason outlining works better for me is because my stories often have several plot threads going on at once involving separate groups of characters and I simply can’t remember what everyone’s doing! Outlining first allows me to plot each group’s journey through the story separately and then weave them together in a workable sequence of alternating scenes.
A third reason I prefer to outline is the simple fact I don’t get that many truly original ideas for my stories. More often than not I need to spend some extra time shaping my idea into something different. If I just sat down and wrote a story based on my first germ of an idea, I’d probably end up writing a story that’s already been told.
How I outline
I like to think that my stories have equally powerful plot and characters. But at the outlining stage I focus on plot and develop my characters as I go. I basically adhere to Hitchcock’s advice: ‘First decide what your characters must do, then provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they would do it.’
There are two questions I continually ask myself as I’m outlining my story:
1. What character would be most challenged by the situation I’ve created?
2. What situation would most challenge the character I have in mind?
Answering the question about character gives me ideas for the plot, and exploring the question about situation gives me ideas about my characters. In this way my plot and characters are like two seedlings planted side by side that continually intertwine as they grow.
Outlining RUN TO ME
When I was creating the plot for RUN TO ME, initially I knew only that my heroine was going to save the life of a runaway boy. That was the idea I started with.
Considering the danger the boy was in, (being chased by killers) that would have been a difficult enough task for my heroine. But by repeatedly asking myself, ‘What would make that situation even more challenging?’ I found new dimensions not only to my character but the plot as well.
In my heroine’s case I gave her a similar experience in her past – she’d once had to protect her own son and failed, leaving her crippled with guilt over her only child’s death. To then be faced with that situation again, even involving a total stranger, it would have a far greater impact on her.
Adding this element made the story more compelling to me. But by pushing even further and asking the question again – how can this situation be even worse for my character? – I came up with another plot element: not only does the heroine carry this dark secret from her past, she is still adversely affected by it in that she suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – to the point she can barely function in the world.
So by repeatedly asking these questions in the plotting stage, I moved from ‘a woman helping a boy in danger’, to ‘a damaged recluse, in hiding from the world, forced to relive the very experience that drove her to that state – the greatest challenge she could possibly face that will push her to the very brink of insanity.’
After going through this process with the heroine, I moved to my second main character, ten-year-old Zack, and asked that same question – bad enough he’s a child being chased by killers, what could make that situation even worse for him?
Answer: Zack is an orphan who’s been shunted from one foster home to the next. For years he’s been desperate for a mother’s love and now suddenly he’s presented with a ‘mother’ who seems to adore him and is prepared to give her life to protect him. The only catch is, she thinks he’s her dead son, Jesse; which means she doesn’t love him at all. To be given this taste of his deepest desire yet denied the reality, ups the emotional stakes for Zack.
Lastly, I repeated the process with my hero, Chase. As he’s a doctor dedicated to helping people, I decided what would make things hardest for him would be to present him with an ethical dilemma – help the woman he’s falling in love with even though he can see she’s unstable, or do things ‘by the book’ and run the risk of her being killed.
To make this situation even worse for the hero, I gave him an experience in his past where he was faced with a similar choice – he’d once tried to help a victim of abuse through the ‘proper’ channels and in that instance the woman had died. This time, because it’s a woman he cares for on a personal level, his decision is all the more agonizing.
These were the questions I explored in creating my outline for RUN TO ME. I firmly believe this preliminary stage helped me get the most from my original idea. If I’d simply sat down and started writing, I doubt I would’ve come up with these extra dimensions to my plot and characters. Or, if I did, they would’ve occurred to me so far into my first draft, I’d have had to go back and rewrite a lot of earlier material.
So while it takes some extra time initially, for my money, outlining is well worth the effort. Spinning my yarns becomes so much easier with a bit of thoughtful preparation first.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried ‘pantsing’ - writing a novel 'by the seat of your pants' without plotting first. It sounds so wonderfully free and creative the concept sucked me in time after time. But after writing myself into countless dead ends, I’ve finally accepted that it isn’t my process. To get where I’m going when writing a novel, I need a map.
To me, the best comparison for outlining a novel before you write it is carding wool before you spin it. Anyone who has ever hand spun wool knows what a mess most raw fleeces are when you get them. Straight off the sheep’s back they’re full of dirt, seeds, knots, grease and all manner of foreign objects. Carding the wool first opens up the fibres and gets rid of most of that unwanted debris.
I’m not saying it isn’t frustrating sometimes. I’ve got this fabulous project in mind that I’m dying to get to and I have to hold off and do all this extra preparation first. But here’s the thing: if I do take the time to prepare the wool first, when I finally sit down to spin the yarn, the spinning just flows. There are no knots to untangle, no grit to pick out, nothing unwanted to jam up the works. It all just pours out in one steady stream.
Well, my story ideas are often just like a raw fleece – so tangled and full of needless material I have to do some preliminary work before I can even see what I’ve got. Sure it takes time. But, for me, the pay-offs are more than worth it. Because, just like carding that filthy fleece, outlining my story ‘opens things up’ and gets rid of all the rubbish that shouldn’t be there.
A difference in mind-set
For me, plotting a story and writing it are two very different functions. The first is a logical linear process, the second an immersion in creative flow. I seem to work best if I can keep these two actions totally separate.
When plotting, I’m constantly going back and forth, asking questions; creating, changing and deleting scenes; moving things around, determining where my turning points belong. But when all that’s done and I actually start to write the story, my goal is to remain fully absorbed in the world of my characters. I can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to think about plot.
In the plotting stage, I explore and develop my initial idea. I determine who my characters are, what motivates them, the obstacles they face, and decide how this will play out in the story – the all-important sequence of events.
What I end up with is a detailed scene-by-scene outline, a road map I know will get me from A to B. I know my story now contains all the required elements of structure because I can see them in this mini overview. From this point on I don’t have to think about the plot any more. All I have to do is sit down and write it.
While this may sound as though I leave nothing to chance, that isn’t the case. I rarely get through my first outline without changing things. Once I actually start writing the story, new ideas always present themselves which requires me to redraft my outline.
That’s perfectly okay. The purpose of my outline isn’t to keep me rigidly bound to a pre-set plot but merely to give me a path to follow. The bottom line is, when I get up in the morning I have to be able to go to my desk knowing what I’ll be writing that day. If I don’t, I just end up wasting too much time.
Next week I'll continue the outlining theme with a post on How I Outline.
Every morning before I start work on my current project I freewrite 2-3 pages in my journal. I write about anything that pops into my head using the basic rule of freewriting: write without thought to spelling, punctuation, grammar, or content; don’t stop to correct, cross out or edit, just keep your hand moving.
This practice helps me in so many ways:
1. Like a musician playing scales, journaling is a way of warming up both physically and mentally before starting work.
2. Because I’m hyperactive and prone to stress, journaling is a way of gently calming myself. Writing my thoughts forces me to slow them down and the simple act of putting words on the page is very soothing. (I believe there’s a scientific basis for this. In our everyday lives we spend most of our time in the beta mind state – alert and focused on the outside world. Journaling acts like meditation, drawing us into an alpha brain state in which we’re more reflective and conducive to insights.)
3. The practice of jotting down any old rubbish that comes into my head with no attempt to produce ‘good’ writing, helps me silence my inner critic. Because there are no expectations with journaling I have no fear of getting it wrong. This freedom tends to carry over to my ‘serious’ writing and helps especially with creating a first draft.
4. If something is bothering me I can vent my feelings on the pages of my journal and explore possible solutions. This helps get the problem out of the way so it doesn’t distract me from working on my project. It also gives me insights into my actions, feelings and motivations.
5. When I’m blocked I tend to procrastinate. When it’s time to sit down and write I suddenly find all sorts of things I need to be doing instead. (When I start doing housework instead of writing I know there’s a problem!) The trouble is, the more I procrastinate, the more stressed I become that I’m not writing. And the more stressed I get, the harder it is to sit down and write. Journaling interrupts this negative cycle.
6. Journaling is a refreshing change from editing. It exercises a different part of the brain and gives me a chance to indulge in creative play.
7. I often use journaling as a way to review the goals I’ve set myself and give myself a mental pep talk.
8. As an added bonus, I believe free-writing in any form, whether journaling or as an exercise on a given topic, helps to solidify an author's voice.
For more insights on the uses of journaling and freewriting:
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brand
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Creative Journal Writing, Stephanie Dowrick
I remember years ago discovering knitting. I’d barely finished my first scarf before deciding I wanted to make a sweater with a sunset on the back. How cool, I thought, to have all those subtle gradations of color rising up the back of my cardigan.
Because I hadn’t a clue how to do it, I went into my local yarn shop and asked an expert. ‘You can’t,’ was her answer. ‘You’d need a different color yarn for every row and what would you do with all those odd-colored balls leftover? Plus you’d end up with a thousand lose threads at the back of the work which you’d either have to thread in or leave hanging loose.’ She scowled at the thought. ‘Very unprofessional looking.’
With my creative bubble well and truly burst, I went home with some boring monotone yarn and a pattern that would show me the ‘proper’ way to knit a sweater.
Years later a man named Kaffe Fasset discovered knitting. Because he was an artist he approached the process from a totally different angle – he used yarn to create his garments the way he used paints to create his paintings. He was as ignorant about the ‘right’ way to knit as I had been. The difference was he didn’t ask an expert for help.
Fasset did exactly what that woman in the yarn shop told my I couldn’t. (His patterns use upwards of 90 different colors for a single garment!) In the process he discovered a way to knit in all the lose ends as he worked so he didn’t have to thread them in afterwards. Yes, he ended up with drawers full of odd-colored yarn but they simply added to his source materials for future projects.
What does this story have to do with writing? Here’s what I took away from the experience:
Never let an expert tell you something can’t be done until you’ve tried it yourself. (Unless we’re talking skydiving or mountain climbing.)
Never let another writer tell you there’s only one right way to write.
Never let anyone turn you off an idea for a story until you’ve thoroughly explored it. (And even then, have one more go – that idea came to you for a reason!)
Never let a ‘proper’ education get in the way of true learning.
I make this my first post for a reason: most of what I’ll be discussing in this blog are approaches to writing that have worked for me. They might not necessarily work best for others; I offer them simply as options to consider. So no matter how excited I get about an idea, please don’t think I’m suggesting it’s the only way to do it.
I’ve been debating for a long time whether or not to start a blog. On the one hand I’m passionate about writing and excited at the prospect of sharing my thoughts with readers and other writers. The trouble is I know I’ll spend hours revising and polishing each of my posts which could cut into my novel-writing time.
The bottom line is I won’t know till I try, so I’ve decided to give it a go for a year writing one blog a week and at the end of that time re-evaluate and decide whether I want to continue.
What will I be blogging about: all aspects of writing and the writer’s life.
What qualifies me to write a blog?
I’ve been writing fiction for 15 years. In that time I’ve completed ten novels, one of which, RUN TO ME, was published by Random House with two others currently in the pipeline; 35 short stories, 8 of which were published in That’s Life magazine; and a three-part series on my adventures running a donkey sanctuary published in Donkey Digest US magazine.
I read obsessively on the craft of writing, creativity in general and on motivation and goal achievement. High achievers in any field fascinate me and I love analyzing the winning habits of top musicians, athletes, artists, scientists and even business people.
As a professional violinist (Bachelor of Music from The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) I continually draw parallels between music and writing that hopefully others may find interesting.
To date I’ve attended 5 major writers’ conferences both in Australia and the US, and countless workshops, large and small.
I’ve been a member of an active critiquing group for 14 years and organize week-long writing retreats three times a year on their behalf.
As workshop coordinator of my local writing club I plan and prepare exercises for one-day and weekend workshops that I’m told are both fun and creatively stimulating.
Lastly, and perhaps most valuable of all, in the years I’ve been writing I have screwed up just about everything you can get wrong in fiction and learned enormously from the experience!
I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to share.